In 2005, Constance Nzeneu fled her home country of Cameroon. She was facing the prospect of a forced marriage and, as a consequence of the arrangement, forced FGM. She travelled to the UK to seek a fate that she could control.
The right to claim asylum is enshrined in Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Why, then, does the UK treat those fleeing from persecution with such disdain and disregard?
Government policy regarding those seeking asylum is rife with xenophobia and racism. Whether they enter the country legally or illegally, asylum seekers have no lawful right to work in this country. Depending on access to government support, this can lead to destitution, homelessness, and a life of extreme poverty.
Sometimes, a place to live is provided, but it’s often the homes that council tenants turn down. Those seeking asylum also have no control over where they are to live whilst awaiting a decision on their status. On government support, Constance was sent to Cardiff and lived off food vouchers day to day.
Despite media scaremongering, the UK doesn’t home more asylum seekers than any other country. The idea of seeking asylum in the UK is too often met with derision in the tabloid press. Much like the media characterisation of today’s welfare recipient, asylum seekers have too often been the personification of all that is wrong with this country. This vilification isn’t unusual to anyone living on the margins, but its consistent propagation forms public opinion about those seeking asylum, often with damaging effect.
We must question global structures that force women into destitution, and challenge our government’s complicity in this. In Cameroon, the objectification and subjugation of women denied Constance agency, thieving from her the choice of who she might want to spend the rest of her life with. This isn’t restricted to any particular culture, race or creed- whether formalised or insidious, women’s heterosexual relations are almost always surrendered to the whims of patriarchy.
But her escape from an unwanted marriage meant her living situation was a case of out of the frying pan, and into the fire. With her options limited by structural discrimination, Constance's choices were forced marriage, or forced destitution. How does one create hope at the intersection of despair?
Suspended in the purgatory of a decision from the UK home office, two years after applying, she was eventually refused asylum. But Constance fought back, and with a four month old son in tow, she launched an anti-deportation campaign.
Speaking at UK Feminista’s Summer School last month, Constance told of how she struggled daily, yet threw herself into community activism. She dissuaded her immediate neighbours from participating in anti-immigrant hatred. Then, she created a safe haven in the intersection of state racism and structural patriarchy- setting up Women Seeking Sanctuary, a small volunteer run organisation for women in the same situation as her. I met one of the women who had been helped by the group recently- she told me how it had given her hope, welcomed her children, and changed her life.
The Women Seeking Sanctuary Advocacy Group works to lobby and advocate on behalf of refugee women as well as running a fortnightly support group open to women and children. They also provide information on the basics of the UK Home Office’s routine detention procedures – a process that rips those seeking asylum away from the UK unexpectedly, and throws many lives into confusion and fear. So often, articulating the problem is the first step to creating the solution. Strength is found in numbers, and Constance’s work has created the backbone of a strong community.
There’s a lot to be said for the role state structures play in forcing the marginalised to the margins. Those of us interested in justice need to be concerned with the lives of the marginalised. We also need to ask serious questions of a feminism more concerned with the twitter abuse button than asylum seeking and refugee women working to support each other and resist deportation.
Constance won joint Woman of the Year in March at the Migrant and Refugee Woman of the Year Awards. She is living testimony that even under circumstances that might crush a person under the weight of unjust structures, hope can still thrive.